Future Shock: Fighting to Stay Current and Maintain Sanity as a Filmmaker

by | Aug 23, 2016 | Essays | 0 comments

JM Headshot2014Med
by James Mathers
Cinematographer and Founder of the Digital Cinema Society
(Excerpted from the Digital Cinema Society eNewsletter, August 2016)

FutureShockTitle200px Future shockFuture Shock is the title of a book written in 1970 by Alvin Toffler, who passed away recently at the age of 87.  In it, Toffler defines the term “future shock” as a certain psychological state when individuals or entire societies perceive a sense of “too much change in too short a period of time.”  Toffler argues that undergoing such an enormous amount of technological and social change overwhelms people leaving them feeling disconnected and suffering from “shattering stress and disorientation,” or if you will…Future Shock.

He writes of the problems created when tools become disposable as the cost to maintain and repair them becomes greater than the cost of making new ones. Or when our tools become outdated too quickly with a second generation appearing before the end of the first generation’s useful life, causing planned obsolescence.  Another example is when whole branches of industry die off and new branches arise with workers compelled to change their profession and their workplace many times within a lifetime.

Although Toffler was writing more generically of societal change, some of these issues are acutely familiar when applied to the Motion Picture Industry. Perhaps the frustrations many of us have been experiencing lately can be attributed to a bad case of Future Shock.

With the possible exception of coins from a vending machine, change is inevitable.  It is how we deal with that change that will define our success and even our mental health.  Do we bury our heads in the sand waiting for the fad to blow over?  That may have worked for some who decided to ignore 3D, but a less than proactive stance by film manufacturers almost spelled the demise of celluloid.

In the other extreme, do we let the fear of becoming irrelevant desperately drive the need to be first on the block to use any new gizmo?  MerryGoRoundI have learned that trying to always be at the center of every new technology is like sitting too long in the center of the playground merry-go-round; it may be exciting and fun at first, but it eventually leads to dizziness and nausea.  Yet, I feel a responsibility to keep up with Entertainment Industry technology, both in my work as a Cinematographer, and even more so in my roll running the Digital Cinema Society.  The latest challenge is VR.

With new and better VR playback technology coming in the form of Samsung Gear, Oculus Rift, PlayStation VR, HTC Vive and others, it seems there will be an appetite for quality content.  I’ve decided to embark on a VR production, but I want to come up with something that is more than a science experiment.  Instead, immersive VR should be integral to telling the story and ad to the viewer’s experience.

I know the ideal path would be to first figure out a story that I want to tell, then pick the best medium to convey it, but time is of the essence, so I may not have that luxury in this case.  I do, however, want to avoid the temptation to simply remake any popular formulaic content, shoot it in 360°, and slap“VR” onto the title.

I haven’t seen any of this content yet since most of it is still in production, but here are a few samples of productions listed recently on IMDB with VR in the title: “Slasher VR,” “The Ark VR,” and “Jesus VR – The Story of Christ,” which is being billed as “the first feature-length virtual reality film ever made.”  I have no way of verifying if that is true, and I’m not sure audiences are ready to sit through 90 minutes of VR anyway, but I wish them well, and give them credit for trying to break new ground.

Insta360The proliferation of inexpensive motion picture cameras and powerful post software has given just about anyone the ability to make an independent feature, and now the same is starting to become true for VR.  For a few hundred dollars you can now buy an attachment for your iPhone allowing for 360 degree capture.  The Insta360 uses dual 210-degree fisheye lenses to capture 3K videos and stills.  Using the camera with your iPhone allows you to instantly share videos since all stitching is done in real time.

Kodak360cameraEven Kodak is getting into the act with their single lens/sensor PIXPRO SP360 Action Camera at under $350 for HD and under $500 for the 4K version.  Something tells me we are going to start seeing a lot more VR content and more people calling themselves VR Filmmakers.  Whether or not any of that content is worth the time spent to view it, is another question.  I just want to make sure my efforts stand above this predicted glut of VR content.

I would like to think I have an edge and may be able to do a better job.  Having been honing my craft as a Filmmaker for over four decades now, my approach is to take the knowledge and experience I’ve gained and adapt it to new technology.  I will also try to reach beyond the consumer market and get my hands on the most professional gear I can afford.  No matter the capture device or medium, however, I’m always mindful that the story is more important than the tools used to tell it.  The tail of technology does not need to wag the dog.

BillyLynnPosterI’m inspired by Ang Lee and eager to see his latest movie, “Billy Lynn’s Long Half Time Walk.”  He consistently pushes the technological filmmaking envelope, but always in the service of artistic expression.   He exhibited some of the best use of 3D we’ve seen on “Life of Pi” and his latest, “Billy Lynn” is said to be the first full-length narrative film to use a combination of 4K, native 3D and the ultra high rate of 120 frames-per-second.  I wasn’t a fan of High Frame Rates in Peter Jackson’s “The Hobbit,” but something tells me that Ang Lee will get it right, especially with a Cinematographer as talented as John Toll, ASC on his team.  Mr. Lee has said he chose this menu of new technologies because “Billy’s journey, which is both intimate and epic, and told almost entirely from his point of view, lent itself particularly well to the emotion and intensity that this new approach fosters.”

Of course, James Cameron is another filmmaker that comes up with great movies while consistently pushing the technological envelope.  His “Avatar” sequels are long overdue, but my guess is that when we finally see them in theaters, it will be worth the wait, and probably break new ground in the art and science of Cinema.  In fact, Cameron, and our own Douglas Trumbull will both be honored by the SMPTE at their upcoming 100 year anniversary gala for their efforts to continuously improve cinematic storytelling through innovative technical methods.  I know they are both working to perfect high frame rates and am sure they are also both exploring VR.SMPTE CameronTrumbull

I ended my last DCS essay proposing that we should all go out and make VR, because I firmly believe that is the only way to figure out how to best use it.  That’s still my plan, but I’m fighting the urge to rush.  Whether it’s 4K, 8K, HDR, HFR, VR, AR, MR, 3D, 4D, Rec 2020, I never want story to become the slave of technology.

Once I come up with a story worth telling, I’ll figure out how to best tell it, then apply professional tools and my filmmaking craft to hopefully make a VR production that will rise above the sea of content that will soon be out there.  It may take a while, especially since I’m still suffering from a bad case of Future Shock.  Whether or not it  becomes a cautionary tale, you can be sure I will be writing about and sharing my experiences with you here.


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